8 Secretly Racist or Offensive Phrases — And What to Use Instead

Sometimes language feels like a real minefield — every time I think I’ve eradicated antiquated offensive language from my vocabulary, someone pops up to say, “actually, did you know…?”

If it feels like a losing or pointless battle, take heart. English has a lot of secretly offensive words with deep — and often forgotten — roots. But learning about a new one shouldn’t make you fling up your arms in despair. Instead, it’s a great opportunity to discuss history and expand your vocabulary by coming up with some good replacements.

I’ve rounded up eight words and phrases with offensive origins that might take you by surprise.

1. “Gypped” or “Jewed”

Both of these terms are used to describe being cheated or sold out — “I totally got gypped on the bill for my house painting.” One probably looks pretty obviously anti-semitic, but what about “gypped”? It’s a reference to Roma people — known in racist slang as “gypsies” — implying that they cheat, steal and swindle people.

Need an alternative? It’s hard to go wrong with: cheated, swindled, snookered, tricked, bilked, scammed, bamboozled or ripped off.

2. “Sold down the river”

This colorful phrase describes a situation in which someone is blamed for something and left to face the consequences: “I got sold down the river after the marketing presentation was a flop.” The term has its origins in slaveholding America, where slave owners would sell people they considered troublesome into the Deep South, a region notorious for even harsher conditions.

Instead, consider: sold out, thrown under the bus or scapegoated.

3. “Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a…”

“…racist by the toe!” While you may have heard one of the words in this childhood counting rhyme replaced with “tiger,” it started out as something else that begins with an “n.” The racist origins go deeper than that, as the song may have traveled from West Africa with slaves who were kidnapped and taken to the New World.

Instead, try a little “one potato, two potato,” or a round of “loves me, loves me not.”

4. “No can do”

“Ching chong,” or mocking sounds designed to make fun of Chinese speakers are both forms of racism directed at Chinese-Americans, and Asian-Americans in general — since racists seem to have trouble telling the difference. “No can do” is a lexical shorthand designed to poke fun at Chinese immigrants with more limited English skills.

Use your words to say: “I can’t do it,” “absolutely not” or just… “no.”

5. “Long time no see”

Just like “no can do,” this phrase is based on mocking the speaking patterns of people who are still learning English. In this case, it’s Native Americans. the Oxford English Dictionary estimates that the phrase originated as far back as 1901.

Seeing a friend for the first time in a while? How about: “It’s been a while!”?

6. “Grandfather clause/grandfathered in”

This phrase describes old policies that receive special exceptions when the rules are changed or modernized – for instance, a nonconforming apartment unit that got grandfathered in when a city updated the planning code.

Sound harmless? This phrase actually has racist origins that lie in the fight for voting rights in the American South. Some states allowed voters with relatives who voted before 1867 — i.e. white people –  to vote without meeting onerous tests. Meanwhile, those who didn’t meet the terms of the “grandfather clause” had to clear additional hurdles to vote.

Need to describe a situation where something gets an exemption from the rules? You could start with “it got an exemption.” Or you could be specific about the situation — for example, “my parcel is slightly undersized, but it’s an existing nonconforming use.”

7. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid”

In 1978, over 900 people killed themselves in Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a poisoned beverage. Thus, the phrase warns against being too gullible or enthralled by cultish people. But the saying isn’t terribly respectful to those who died.

Instead, try: “Don’t get taken in” or “be careful.”

8. “Moron,” “cretin,” “imbecile” or “mongoloid”

All of these terms were once used diagnostically to describe people with developmental disabilities — and in some cases, they’re still in use today. You may hear these words used to refer to someone who doesn’t appear to be thinking very carefully or clearly — “What a moron, she almost hit us!” Their discriminatory nature stems from the belief that people who think and process information differently aren’t worthy of being treated like human beings.

Relatedly, words like stupid, dumb, simple, slow, special, backward and dull have been used in similar ways, though they aren’t explicitly diagnostic in nature — with the exception of “dumb,” used to refer to people who don’t or can’t speak. You can learn more about words that use disability status as an insult by reading our roundup of ableist words and phrases.

Instead, consider: irritating, obnoxious, pointless, ill-considered, thoughtless, inane, laughable, ludicrous, shortsighted, naive, goofy, absurd or asinine.

Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski

175 comments

Peggy B
Peggy B4 days ago

I'm for political correctness, but this is going too far.

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Melania P
Melania Padillaabout a month ago

I am so sick of this "everything is offensive"; you cannot say a word in these times and not being accused of racist or whatever.... Relax! You are making people more delicate, sensitive.....

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 months ago

All the snowflakes need to grow up & get over themselves. Stop being offended over everything! Not everything is racist! or any other ism out there!

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Greta H
Greta H3 months ago

thanks

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Carl R
Carl R3 months ago

Thanks!!!!

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JT Smith
JT Smith3 months ago

The ONLY way you can be offended by anything is if you CHOOSE to be offended. Instead, try shocking everyone by choosing to not be offended. (And "throwing [someone/thing] under the bus is actually promoting murder.)

http://ace910046sca1.blogspot.com/2016/12/dealing-with-offense.html

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Katy Brown
Katy Brown3 months ago

There is power in the words we use. Someone might 'just be joking' but actually the words we use shape the way we see people in society and the way we see ourselves...
Words have power. Use them for good...

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld3 months ago

Samuel,
Apparently, the author wants to place the blame on the words. Words cannot be evil, any more than guns, alcohol, or sex. It is the intent behind those words, just like the intent behind an action. Everyone one of those aforementioned items can be used for good or evil, depending on the person and the circumstance. Perhaps it is time for an influx of some reason and common sense into our lives.

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Britt K
Britt K3 months ago

The answer is simple. Shut up, and don't speak again. We will all be happy, I promise.

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Stardust N
Stardust N3 months ago

By the way, I have never heard of most of these, but I have a friend whose name is " Gay", should she change her name to be proper, teacher?

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